Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Scion: Hero (2nd Edition) - Chapters 3-6

There's a certain amount of relief that comes from finally having a usable version of Scion. The rest of the book is largely devoted to game mechanics and they are, at least at first glance, functional. The low-level powers look a lot heftier and more satisfying than their 1st edition counterparts, which bodes well for the future books in the series. The main thing I want out of a game about playing the offspring of the gods is the feeling that I'm going around wielding god-like power, and Scion: Hero delivers.

The biggest innovation along those lines was the introduction of Marvels. In 1st edition, when you wanted to play the son of the god of death (or what have you), you invested in the Death Purview by buying Death Boons, and your character could do whatever those Boons said you can do. Often, these things were not very good. And usually, even when they were good, they were less good at their price point than just buying a similarly ranked Epic Attribute.

Second Edition solves this problem by changing the way characters interact with Purviews. Now, you gain access to the Purview as a whole through various means (you get one innate Purview, then the rest are granted by Relics and Guides), and once you have access, you can improvise Purview-related magical effects called Marvels.

Marvels can be any sort of magical effect you can imagine, as long as they stem from your Purview's theme and don't get too grandiose in scale. The mechanical limits of how Marvels present themselves are fairly well defined. So you can use a Fire Marvel to throw fireballs, but not to summon volcanoes. To cure frostbite, but not to raise an army of flame-eyed zombie soldiers, like in Thor: Ragnarok. I'm eager to see how this system will evolve in the future books, but characters already feel more like "the god of X" than they ever did in 1st edition, even at the highest levels of power.

Boons in this system are just pre-packaged Marvels. Maybe a bit cheaper, maybe a bit more effective, but every Boon can quite explicitly be emulated by a Marvel. In fact, you can even use Boons of other Purviews as inspiration for Marvels in completely unrelated Purviews. You may have to reskin the effects, and at the very least justify it with a certain amount of rhetoric, but it adds a lot of versatility to even the simplest Scion characters.

The semi-redundancy of Boons takes a bit of the sting out of only having a fixed number of them based on your Legend level, but at the same time it kind of makes that limit feel superfluous. It's difficult to see the harm in letting players just buy whatever Boons they want with xp.

It's a bit early to say, but if Scion 2nd Edition winds up having a fatal flaw, I think this is going to be it. Not necessarily Boons, per se, but the way the xp system as a whole winds up feeling vestigial. What this really wants to be is a level-based game, with advancement happening along very precise milestones. And there's nothing wrong with that, but because it's mostly built like a point-buy game, that means that there's no guarantee that characters will have distinct niches or roles, and a lot of the balancing that could be done by discrete levels is left to chance.

Because the new Storyguide system has fewer opportunities for catastrophic failure than Scion 1e, the worst case scenario is a game where players have a noticeably different effectiveness due to the GM's focus on one type of challenge in preference to another. Yet that is a flaw so common in rpgs that it's barely worth noting.

Since this is likely the last Scion 2nd Edition book we'll be seeing for awhile, Ill take a moment to share my thoughts on the line as a whole. It's a massive step forward, and does quite a bit to fulfill the promise of the original game. I wouldn't call it an unqualified success, though.

I haven't talked a lot about the new presentation of the pantheon because I don't actually know enough about this subject to have an informed opinion. They feel better researched and more respectfully presented than first edition's, but that's just an intuition. I think the game does better re: representation because it's diverse in a very contemporary way. It's aggressively inclusive and it puts big warning signs around potential sources of Eurocentrism, but in establishing its world, it is (almost excessively) wary of creating synecretism.

It's a good concern, because white synecretism is almost always going to be colonialist, but as I mentioned in my post on Scion: Origin, this comes at a cost. In its zeal to affirm that every real-world belief is treated as true, it sometimes sacrifices opportunities to make the World feel real. I don't regard that as a flaw in the game, because I can't count it as a flaw when people have the humility to say, "you know what, I'm not going to appoint myself arbiter of what religions are more accurate than others." However, "these two mutually contradictory are both true" is a sentiment that's only tenable in the abstract. Every particular game of Scion that's actually played by real people is going to wind up declaring some religion or other to be wrong merely by virtue of featuring particular events, involving particular characters, happening in particular settings (and as much as I respect Scion: Hero's storytelling chapter's advice to be culturally sensitive and not say a religion is wrong, I'm pretty sure avoiding it is a practical impossibility).

That, however, is not a critique of Scion, 2nd edition. Rather, I think we are dancing around a larger critique of fantasy as a whole. Hero cites John Milton's recasting of Egyptian gods as Christian demons as the sort of thing not to do, and while I agree that it's a massively offensive thing for him to have done, I kind of also have to acknowledge that he was backed into a corner there. If the goal of your book is to "justify the ways of God to men" then that is a pretty clear statement that you're coming at the writing with a definite point of view. And how does Milton reconcile the existence of Osiris with his own brand of Christianity?

Making him a demon was pretty shitty, but it's no more of an invalidation of kemeticism than saying Osiris doesn't exist. Maybe it would have been better to leave them out entirely, but that's a pretty hot take to have about Paradise Lost in 2019 ("it would have been better if there was less of it.")

Look, I don't want to get wrangled into playing Milton apologist here. The point is that fantasy fiction that draws on mythological themes is always going to have a different point of view than the original sources. The story where all the Greek myths are 100% literally true has already been written - it's called "the original Greek myths" - with the caveat that a lot of what we think of as "the Greek myths" are actually just contemporary Greeks doing, 2500 years ago, what we're doing now and telling secular stories based on Greek mythology, sort of like how Milton's Paradise Lost has practically become Christian canon in the last 350 years.

Any new use of old stories is going to be intrinsically transformative. Even if you go with "the old Greek myths are 100% canonical and now it's 2500 years later," you're still changing the meaning of the old stories by placing them into a new context, "the Greek myths, but in a world where the Greeks are not the only civilization worth the name." A world where the sun is pushed across the sky by a giant dung beetle and where the sun is a flaming chariot is not a world that honors both traditions. It's a world where they're both wrong because the word "sun" is being used in some kind of off-brand Platonist sense to mean something other than "that big, fiery orb that I'm pointing to right now, up in the sky."

That's not to let everyone off the hook with a blanket "you can never be 100% true to other cultures, so you shouldn't bother trying," but rather to say that you're going to have to approach it like anything else - as something with the power to harm and the power to help. Nobody loves being told they're wrong, but there are ways to do it that are sensitive and ways to do it that are needlessly hurtful.

Bringing it back to Scion. I don't think Scion actually succeeds at its goal of creating a world where all myths are true. But I think that in failing to achieve that goal, it nonetheless makes a very fine rpg. It can't create a coherent setting, due to its own editorial constraints, but it can provide all the tools needed to make ten thousand different Scion-adjacent settings, and that's a pretty great accomplishment.

UKSS Contribution - Air traffic controllers having to route planes so they don't accidentally crash into heaven. That's the sort of detail that appeals to me, an ardent materialist. If I were writing Scion, the setting chapter would be 100% things like that. ("And, um, the entrance to Hades is a cave in southern Greece, and they've got to put up warning signs and barbed-wire fence all around it because people keep wandering in . . .")

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